John Howard Yoder and sexual violence

In the last couple months there have been some significant and substantive conversations going on regarding the most prominent Mennonite theologian of the last half century – John Howard Yoder.  There are strong calls being made for the church and its institutions to more publicly come to terms with the fact that Yoder habitually sexually harassed women.  The first essay I saw addressing this was written on July 17 by Barbara Graber, “What’s to be done about John Howard Yoder?”  It’s powerful, and goes into more detail than I will here.

The blog it appears on, “Our Stories Untold,” is dedicated to being “a safe and open space to discuss sexualized violence within Christianity (and specifically, the Mennonite Church). Blog entries are a mix of personal experience, reflection, discussion, sex positivity, theology, and current events in our world dealing with sexual abuse, all aimed at opening up dialogue about this important topic” (from the blog’s self-description).  Also highly recommended.

Yoder, who died of a heart attack at the age of 70 in 1997, was a prolific writer and brilliant thinker.  His writings have continued to influence the global church and can be credited with the significant rise in interest in Anabaptism and Christian pacifism.  Personally, reading his The Politics of Jesus back in college was a transformative experience.  Current AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk has recently noted that he was a larger-than-life figure who put our values on the world stage.

And therein lies a major part of the problem.  He has been such a popular thinker and powerful person that we have not done a good job of coming to terms with the massive disconnect between his public work and his private actions.

The church did address these issues as they were happening.  This is detailed in pages 44-46 of the most recent issue of The Mennonite.  To be specific, allegations included “improper hugging, use of sexual innuendo or over sexual language, sexual harassment, kissing or attempts to kiss women, and forcible sexual behavior.  Sexual intercourse was not among the allegations” (p. 46) He was asked to leave AMBS, where he taught, in 1984 after refusing to change his behavior and in 1992 submitted to an accountability process through Indiana-Michigan conference which suspended his ministerial credentials and mandated him to go through psychological counseling.

One of the major concerns being raised at this time is that the complexity of his legacy has been reduced to that of a great thinker and writer, covering over or just ignoring the pain he caused many women.  It is hopeful to see (mostly) women raising their voices, telling their stories, and leading us into a better place.  Sara Wenger Shenk has also commented that AMBS is now “committed to a new transparency in the truthtelling that must happen.”  May this conversation and process have rippling effects of healing and hope throughout the church for all victims of abuse and all of the ways that we still fail to honor these stories.